Newbie Tips on Starting a Family Garden


Whatever the opposite of a ‘green thumb’ is, that is what I am. Plants enter through my front door at their own risk and hope to an almighty power that my husband will intervene. Or my first grade daughter, for that matter, who seems to have a natural knack for keeping things alive. So last spring when she expressed interest in starting a garden of her own–a real garden–I knew I had to get my act in order. As she and I prepare for our second season of gardening we sat down to talk about what we learned last year that might be helpful to other families starting their first garden.

Start Small.

We began very early last spring by setting up a garden center in our dining room (which had the best sun exposure), so we could experiment with seeds and get a feel for taking care of plants. Our nursery included some seeds that we read are fairly easy to grow, and we used a variety of methods so we could see what would go well. We started grass seed in a mini gnome garden, an avocado seed suspended in a bell jar by toothpicks, sunflower seeds in typical flower pots, and pea seeds in an egg carton, which can also be done in the egg shells themselves. We had varying levels of luck–the egg carton plants never really took off, but the others did. We were both really excited by the time outdoor growing season came along. BVTMB writer Stephanie has some great tips for starting seeds.

growing seeds as a family
For a first gardening attempt, start early and small, and experiment with growing seeds.

Find a Great Outdoor Spot and Prep Well.

We enlisted my husband to help us build a raised bed in our backyard. We scouted (and agonized over) many possible locations, complicated by the fact that our house is bordered by forest, i.e. shade. We ultimately picked a spot near the treeline at the back of the yard. We got some funny looks and questions from friends and neighbors about being so close to the woods, but we watched the sun patterns throughout the course of the day and realized that spot would get the most sun of anywhere on the property. We also enlisted my father-in-law for high quality composted soil mix, which he had readily available from his farm. Which leads me to our next learning…

Get Advice. Lots of it.

The internet is great. It has a lot of information. But sometimes it has way too much information. We needed to start with the basics, which were hard to weed out surfing online. My father-in-law, though, cultivates an impressive garden every season, and has this down pat. He was a great help in getting us going with some of the basics. The Intervale Center, which Stephanie recently wrote about, is a great way to get excited about gardening. My daughter and I also took a class at Gardner’s Supply in Williston, and quizzed their staff multiple times during the season about the right types of plants to try.

gardening, workshops
Soaking in information at a gardening workshop

One thing we discovered, that went against my instincts, was…

Don’t Be Afraid to Buy Seedlings Instead of Seeds.

Not starting from seed felt like baking brownies from a mix and then saying they were from scratch. But we quickly came to our senses. The chances of our garden succeeding were much greater if we incorporated some seedlings, particularly because we realized we should have started seeds indoors much earlier. We did plant a couple of our selections from seed, though. After all, this was an adventure! Nasturtium, beans, peas, edamame, and carrots. The carrots never materialized, but we were thrilled when the rest of them grew gangbusters. We grew basil, dill, cucumbers, spinach, and beets from seedlings that also did fantastic.

Clearly Understand Plant Sizes.

In hindsight, we didn’t start quite as small as we should have. We generally followed directions for how far apart to space each seed or plant, but we weren’t as precise as we could have been, and quite honestly I didn’t always believe them! But I should have. As the plants started to grow we could see them encroaching into each others space, particularly the nasturtium and herbs. Likewise, we had no idea how tall the bean plants would get. We had purchased bush beans, which to me meant low. However, they were in the sunnier, front part of our bed and threw a lot of shade on the cucumbers behind them.

Bask in the Glory of Eating Your Own Produce.

Definitely the best part. She and I were both so proud of what we accomplished. There’s nothing like snacking on a just-picked, sun-warmed spinach leaf or green bean in your own back yard.

gardening, garden, family activity
The fruits (or vegetables) of our gardening labor.


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